Our Sanctuary's Ancient Living Treasures
Their race was born in primeval seas over 100 million years ago, of an even more ancient lineage beyond memory, beyond comprehension. Then, nearly 66 million years ago, the asteroid Chicxulub collided with Earth, hurling masses of pulverized rock into the air, raining down ash and cloaking the skies in twilight darkness for months―perhaps years. The ensuing cascade of global catastrophes disrupted entire ecosystems and wiped out nearly 80 percent of life on our planet. But somehow, this creature survived. With its slow, undemanding metabolism, the leatherback sea turtle, Dermocheles coriacaea, managed to eke out an existence, secure in its ocean habitat. Sometimes, life in the slow lane pays off.
Could such a creature, despite its proven adaptive survival strategies, become extinct in our lifetimes? Sadly, it could. Leatherback sea turtle populations are declining worldwide. Our West Pacific Leatherback subpopulation, which feeds off Western North America in summer and fall, has declined 83.0% in just three generations. Because of continuing human impacts, and despite protective legislation, the West Pacific subpopulation is rated as Critically Endangered per the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. Experts predict a population decline of 96% by the year 2040 if this trend is not reversed.
That is why, from September 1 through 29, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will take to the skies in a small fixed-wing plane, flying low above coastal waters from Pt. Arena south to Monterey Bay, searching for leatherback and other sea turtles, and marine mammals. Their efforts will focus on our north-central California national marine sanctuaries: Greater Farallones, Cordell Bank, and Monterey Bay. These lie in the California Current – among the richest foraging grounds. This is also one of their safest havens, thanks to areas off Northern California, Oregon and Washington where fishing is restricted. Research cruises and seasonal aerial censusing helps NOAA Fisheries Protected Resources Division gain critical knowledge of leatherback population trends. Year-round, Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary complements sea turtle monitoring through its Applied California Current Ecosystem Studies (ACCESS) cruises and Beach Watch programs.
Leatherbacks are highly migratory: e.g., the Papua New Guinea/Indonesia breeding population – aka West Pacific Leatherback – travels 7,000 miles to our West Coast waters to feed on jellies and other gelatinous prey. They face threats wherever they are: from harvest of females and eggs, fisheries bycatch (accidental capture of non-targeted species), marine debris entanglement, development of critical beach nesting habitats, and boat strike. Therefore, agencies such as NOAA Fisheries, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, scientists, fisherfolk, and conservation groups have formed international coalitions to protect them worldwide. They have enacted bans on poaching turtle meat and eggs, mandated fishing gear modifications, set seasonal, areal and situational closures for gillnets and long-line fisheries, and protected nesting beach habitats. Agencies and private funders also provide direct financial assistance to local groups to carry out broader-scale conservation measures. Some experts advocate more draconian measures, and not all parties agree about the cost-benefit ratio of fisheries restrictions (see links, below), while much depends on very limited enforcement. Thus, these current measures may not outstrip the leatherback sea turtle’s present rate of decline.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: You can protect the leatherback’s feeding grounds in your own marine sanctuaries and everywhere through these simple actions: Watch out for sea turtles when boating, and steer clear. Report any live, dead, or entangled sea turtles immediately to The Marine Mammal Center, (415) 289-7325. Prevent marine debris entanglement through proper disposal of trash and fishing gear, and beach cleanups. Never use party balloons that could land in the ocean and choke hungry turtles. Buy only seafood caught in well-regulated American fisheries: ask at the market, ask at the restaurant. Avoid eating seafood caught with high-bycatch gear (e.g., long-lines), including swordfish and some tuna; the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch wallet card is a handy reference. Support conservation measures. California recently declared October 15th as Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle Conservation Day. Find out about (or initiate!) an event in your community.
Finally, you can help by learning more about ongoing efforts, and supporting your local national marine sanctuaries that protects ocean wildlife and habitats for turtles and all marine life. http://farallones.noaa.gov and www.farallones.org, our non-profit 501.c.3 partner.
Mary Jane Schramm, NOAA Greater Farallones, National Marine Sanctuary